My family recently went on a two-week trip to China in order to celebrate my parents’ 70th birthdays. We had to postpone our trip for a year due to various circumstances, but finally made it happen this past June! While we do try to take extended family/ multigenerational reunions and trips a few times a year, this was the longest and most ambitious trip we’ve done to date. There were ten of us – 6 adults, and 4 kids (ages 12, 7, 6 and 4). I highly recommend traveling with elder family members and loved ones when you can. Life is precious, and there is no better time than now.
This was a very different trip for me, since I didn’t do any of the research or planning! My parents made ALL of the arrangements, despite my offer to help. They have travelled to China several times, and had a certain plan in mind to give us a variety of experiences. My parents shared the itinerary with us ahead of time, but it was largely written in Chinese, and I was so busy with work leading up to the trip, that I just pretty much just showed up ready each day for a new adventure!
This post is focused on general tips and packing suggestions for traveling to China, but I’ll quickly summarize our itinerary and places we visited first.
Beijing – 4 days: We did not use a tour agency for Beijing. My parents and I have been to Beijing several times before, and are familiar with the major sites. We stayed in serviced apartments, and used public transportation (city bus and subway) to get around. We did self tours of the Summer Palace, Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and Temple of Heaven. We hired a drive/guide for a day trip to the Mutianyu Great Wall, which everyone felt was a highlight!
Guilin and Yangshuo: 4 days: My parents arranged a small group tour through C-Trip (also known as trip.com). We visited the famous Longsheng Rice Terraces, enjoyed the beautiful scenery of Li river by boat and raft, and went underground to explore the Silver cave. This was the most beautiful “nature part” of our trip.
Hangzhou: 4 days We have distant family here who were incredibly hospitable and took the time to show us around. It rained the entire time we were in Hangzhou, but we still had a great time! We spent a day walking around beautiful West Lake, visited the Longjing tea fields to learn about tea culture/ history, and made a day trip to the ancient river village of Wuzhen.
Qingtian 2 days: Family time. This is my father’s hometown, so we spent time with relatives and visiting the family ancestral hall. We also did a nice hike here at the Shimengdong Forest Park, and trekked up the mountain to a cool suspension bridge!
Shanghai: 2 days: We really only had one full day in Shanghai due to travel time to and from the city. We spent a day walking / window shopping through several shopping districts (Tianzifang, Xintiandi, Nanjing Road) and eating many delicious things with my cousin, ending the evening at the Bund.
*If you’re interested in seeing more photos and details of each of these places, please check out our instagram page @everydayadventurefam and the hashtag #wongsvisitchina for more information!
General tips for visiting China!
1. When to visit:
I’ve been to China a few times. Both fall (September) and spring (April) were comfortable, with mild weather. My in-laws travelled to Beijing once in November, and reported back that it was colder than they expected, and even hailed! In general, summers in China tend to be quite hot and humid, with occasional rain showers. My recommendation would be to visit in the spring or fall if possible, but summer tends to be the most popular time to go, since kids are out of school.
2. Be prepared for very little English (written or spoken), and relatively few non-Chinese tourists/ expats in most areas.
Everyone in my extended family is of Chinese descent (myself, my brother, our spouses, and the grandkids), so we did not stand out much during our trip. However, as a heads up to Non-Chinese visitors who may not have black hair and brown eyes, I have heard stories of people with fair skin/ light hair color experiencing occasional unexpected/ unsolicited attention (ie staring, people wanting to take photos with them). Here is a good blog post describing this experience.
Road signs, menus, etc are almost all in Chinese, though some menus have photos that one can point at to order. I am able to understand and speak Chinese, as well as recognize a few simple characters. This came in incredibly helpful when trying to shop, order food, or ask for directions. My husband only knows Cantonese, and shared feeling very helpless at times. We were thankful to have my parents to help us navigate.
Although I can not directly comment because I did not plan this trip, my sense is that for Non-Chinese speaking travelers, it may be logistically easiest to sign up for a tour through a travel agency or your hotel/ with English guides to get the most out of your trip. I found this helpful resource: “10 tips for traveling in China Without Speaking Chinese by Richelle of the blog Adventures around Asia that is worth a read.
3. Be prepared to have your passport on you at almost all times, and face scanned when checking in for hotels, and going to some major tourist sights:
Facial recognition is becoming very popular in China, not just for locals, but also for tourists. Here is a link to an article on this. At check in at all hotels, your passports will be needed. We were only asked to scan our face at our hotel in Shanghai. We did need our passports to get through security to Tiananmen Square. You can not decline these security checks, so I wanted to give people a heads up.
4. Payment: For Non-Chinese travelers – Cash is still king as of 2019
Bensen at the Travel Brief wrote an excellent post on payment options in China. To summarize, it is best to carry cash in China (ATMs are easy to find). Bring a Visa or MasterCard, and use it wherever you can (ie hotels, major shopping centers and chain restaurants) in order to save cash.
- Chinese merchants (big brands and street vendors) accept the following forms of payment: a) mobile payment in the form of AliPay or WeChat. In order to use these payment apps you need to have a Chinese bank account, which most travelers will not have, b) UnionPay, a Chinese domestic credit card brand, which most travelers do not have; and c) cash.
- International credit card (ie VISA, Mastercard) acceptance is fairly low to none. Forget about trying to us AMEX, Discover, Diners Club, JCB or other cards. We were only able to use our VISA for airlines, major hotels (international brands and big domestic brands), and select upscale restaurants in the bigger cities.
- We found that cash is accepted at most places, though not all. We visited a food court in an upscale mall in Hangzhou that would only accept Alipay or WeChat pay. We had to ask our relative help purchase our items for us, and paid her back in cash.
5. Getting Around: Public Transportation
In the major cities, Beijing, Hangzhou, and Shanghai, we found public transportation easy to navigate and very inexpensive. There are many stairs, but almost every place had working escalators.
- The subway system was clean and efficient. You can buy tickets in self serve kiosks with cash.
- Train: We took the high speed train from Hangzhou to Qingtian and Qiantian to Shanghai. It was comfortable and a great way to travel!
- Taxis: We didn’t use taxis too often, since we generally arranged car service for our big group. When we did occasionally take a taxi (in the big cities of Hangzhou and Shanghai), the drives did accept cash and the cost was very reasonable. Be prepared that most taxi drivers will probably not speak much, if any English. They did seem to have meters with the cost of trip displayed.
6. Bathrooms: The toilets are different in China – squat toilets are still the most popular options.
In general, when traveling in China, it is good to be mentally prepared for squat toilets. To be honest, this was the biggest culture shock I experienced the first time I visited China in 1994. This is a great guide by Trip Savvy on how to use a squat toilet. The good news is that they are generally well maintained and clean. In addition, most of the public bathrooms we went to did have an option for a western seated toilet, which they mark on the door with a picture or designate as a handicap toilet. Of note, all the hotels that we stayed at had western toilets. Some important things to remember to make your toileting experience more comfortable are:
- Pack tissues/ portable toilet paper : Most public restrooms don’t provide it.
- Hand sanitizer: There is often no soap, nor paper towels, by the sink
- Don’t throw your used paper into the toilet. Throw it into the basket next to it, and try not to look.
7. Virtual Private Network (VPN)
China’s firewall and internet monitoring/ censorship can make it difficult for Westerners to stay in touch with friends and family back home. Many sites are blocked, including Google and all google products (ie maps, drive, gmail), Facebook, Instagram, and Youtube. If you do not have your own private network, you will not be able to access these websites while you are traveling. We used Express VPN with success, but there are other good options. This is a great article covering VPN use in China.
8. Electric Plug Converters:
It is important to bring the correct power adapter for China. China uses a 220 Volt 50 Hz AC electricity supply and several socket types (type I, B, C). We recommend bringing a universal adapter to ensure that you will be able to charge your devices without ruining them.
9. Familiar Food Options:
There is a huge variety of food to eat and try in China. However, less adventurous eaters fear not! If you want something familiar to eat during your travels, there are plenty of McDonald’s and KFC throughout the big cities of China.
10. The Long flight:
The flight from Los Angeles (LAX) to Beijing, and from Shanghai to LAX were the longest flights the children had ever experienced. It was about 11 hours on the way there, and slightly shorter on the way back due to the tailwinds. I packed an entire carry on suitcase of things to make the flight more comfortable including some of the toys and items mentioned below in the packing list, and snacks. We did not end up needing that many things to entertain the kids – though the toys/ snacks came in handy for the rest of the trip and long bus rides as well. Nowadays, each airplane seat has a TV so we let our kids enjoy some of the kids programming. We normally limit screen time at home, but we found that on these long flights – a combination of some screen time, reading/drawing and napping made for a fairly enjoyable and no fuss trip!
Recommended Packing List for China:
1. Clothing for comfortable and stylish travel:
We found quick dry clothing to be practical for staying comfortable and stylish throughout our China Vacation. Since I knew we were going to be traveling during the hot humid season, I mainly packed quick dry (ie generic dri-fit) clothing for myself, my kids and my husband. I was happy to find that if I hand washed and wrung dry these items in the evening, they were dry (with the help of our hotel A/C) by the morning! Another tip was to mainly pack solid and neutral colors, so it was easy to mix and match and coordinate tops/ bottoms and our family outfits.
For summer travel, we wore short sleeve shirts and shorts the whole time. We only wore long sleeve/ long pants for the flights to and from the US to China, due to air conditioning. We never needed our sweater or jacket. I’m sharing some of our favorite brands and travel pieces below.
Our boys wore almost entirely Old Navy quick dry tops and shorts. I was able to get a great deal on them on sale. They washed easily and I was impressed with no stains!
2. Comfortable Walking shoes:
We did a lot of walking everywhere we visited in China. I checked my fitness tracker and we walked 10-20,000 steps on our sightseeing days! Of note, we saw very few strollers during our entire time in China, and especially in Beijing – the historical structures often require walking up many many steps. I packed 3 pairs of shoes for each of us: a) light weight sneakers – ie Nike’s, b) flip flops for adults, natives for boys (which doubled as slippers at the hotels), and c) waterproof sport sandals – ie the Keen Newport Sandal. We found our waterproof sport sandals to be the most useful, given the frequent rain we encountered and the support they provided for long walks/ hikes.
3. Sun protection
While visiting tourist sites, we were often in direct sun without shade. Sun block , hats, sunglasses, and even the use of an umbrella for shade is recommended.
4. Umbrella/ Raincoat
It rained for 5 days straight during our 2 week trip. Despite the heavy rain, we walked 5-8 miles each day to sightsee. After all, who knows when we’ll have the chance to return! Having an umbrella per person (including the kids) was very handy when it rained. We were able to buy relatively inexpensive small lightweight umbrellas there, and our relatives shared some of theirs with us, but I’m glad I brought a couple more sturdy and larger umbrellas from home. I had also prepared for plastic raincoats, but no one wanted to wear them because they were unbreathable and uncomfortable in the hot humid climate. My sister in law did not have any waterproof shoes but we were able to find tourist kiosks in Hangzhou that sold little rain booties to zip over your shoes.
5. Handwashing system and Clothesline:
These are not essential – you can just wash the clothes in the sink with soap and get creative about where to hang them to dry, but I did find the following products very useful during our trip. They actually made washing the clothes somewhat enjoyable and efficient!
6. Extra Memory card for photos
If you’re a photo enthusiast, there will be plenty of photo ops in China. Don’t be like us and forget to bring an extra memory card. It’s annoying to have to spend time deleting pics on the card in order to make more room for new ones. Unless you are in a big shopping area in one of the larger cities, it’s not easy to find a memory card.
7. Familiar toys and snacks (when traveling with children):
Our boys are 4 and 6, and overall they did great on this trip. I did bring an entire carry-on suitcase of comfort items for them and I think they appreciated having some familiar things during our 2 week trip. Some items that our boys really enjoyed were:
- Books : our 6 year old can read, so he would read books during train rides or periods of down time. We had some physical books as a few books that we downloaded onto a kindle.
- Gathre leather mat: I debated bringing this large mat but am really glad I did because it allowed the boys to be able to sit and lie down on the ground at the hotels, and read, draw or build with their plus plus blocks.
- Plus Plus blocks: I discovered these right before our tript! I mainly picked them because they are more compact then legos (hence best for kids 4 or 5 year old and up) for travel. Turns out you can use them to build and create little sculptures. They were a HUGE hit!
- GoHappy travel tray : I hemmed and hawed about this purchase – these trays are $39.50 and a bit on the bulky/ larger side. They did not fit in the boys’ or my carry on camera backpack, but I did put them in the carry on suitcase. In the end, I’m glad I brought them because the boys used them on the long plane flights (the raised edges kept things from falling off the table), and at the hotels for playing. They also provided a clean surface for snacks for the kids. I got these trays just before this trip, and look forward to getting more use out of them!
- Drawing pads and pencils/ coloring pencils: Our boys favorite pastime is to draw so I had several small drawing pads ready. They filled almost 2 pads each on this trip!
- Individual Peanut Butter Packets: I brought a few of these and on some days when our boys just weren’t feeling the local food, I was able to spread these on some crackers or bread (relatively easy to find).
- Tissues : This is a must bring! Bring small packets of tissues to use as toilet paper for restrooms, wiping your hands at restaurants (most places did not offer any napkins!), etc.
- Hand Sanitizer: see above
- Fork and Spoon: If you are not savvy with chopsticks or are traveling with children who aren’t accustomed to chopsticks, it is wise to bring your own travel cutlery. Many restaurants in China ONLY provide chopsticks and at best, a soup spoon. Forks are hard to come by.
- Mosquito repellent: We didn’t encounter too many mosquitos in the cities, but did experience a bunch of them when we went hiking in Qingtian.
- Reusable water bottle/ hydration backpack: On the hot humid days we were walking through Beijing, we went through a ton of water. We all commented that it would have been practical to have brought our hydration backpacks.
- Extra bags: We always pack a few of extra bags, ranging from reusable shopping bags to duffles. We found the shopping bag handy for day trips, and the extra duffles helpful for bringing home souvenirs and presents.
I hope this post is helpful for anyone who is traveling to, or considering a trip to, China. Please comment below if you have any other questions or suggestions! Of note, we were gifted a few clothing pieces from Prana for this trip, but overall all the content in this post represents our own opinions.